Food & Drink What's in a word?

Small farmers say USDA has stolen the word 'organic'

Jacque Gates runs a small organic farm on the outskirts of Lockhart. She grows squash, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers that she sells in the River Valley Farmer's Market down the road in Bastrop. A self-proclaimed "fanatic" when it comes to the rigors of organic farming, Gates labors under a comprehensive notion of her chosen trade.

"How an organic farmer thinks of 'organic' is how the entire cycle works and how I fit into it," she says. "It's not just that I use organic amendments. I use drip tape to conserve water. I use compost to enrich my soil. I use mulch. It's a whole cycle."

As Gates enters her fourth year as a conscientious organic farmer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture enters its third year as official arbiter of what it means to be organic. Since October 2002, producers and handlers have been required to obtain certification from a USDA-accredited agent to sell, label, or represent their products as organic. While some see federal regulation as an effective way to encourage producers to adopt more consistently healthful practices, others, such as Gates, consider it a hostile takeover.

"As soon as `the USDA` took over the program, immediately Congress began trying to weaken the restrictions," says Gates. "I just have a bad feeling that pretty soon the word won't mean anything."

What to look for when buying organic food:

"100% Organic" means all ingredients are organic.

"Organic" means a minimum of 95% of ingredients are organic.

"Made with organic ingredients" means 70% to 94% of the product is organic.

Multi-ingredient foods, such as breakfast cereal, with less than 70% organic ingredients may not use the organic label, but can list specific organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package.

"Natural" and "organic' are not interchangeable, but that and other quality claims such as free-range, hormone-free, and non-GM can still appear on labels.
The National Organic Program is a voluminous list of criteria specifying allowed and prohibited substances, land-management practices, livestock standards, and labeling requirements. Prior to the law, a guiding light for the organic movement was the California Organic Foods Act, a state guideline program passed in 1990 that comprised the first organic standards in the nation. Congress passed the Organic Food Production Act the same year and lawmakers wrangled over the official national standards for nearly a decade before the National Organic Program finally went into effect in October 2002. Until then, certification requirements around the nation lacked consistency, with state and private certifiers using different standards.

Some organic farmers, like Gates, believe the National Organic Program's uniform standards came at too high a price. In particular, Gates is concerned about a provision of the law that states "organic is not synonymous with GM-free." The USDA's website specifies that the "adventitious presence of a genetically modified or genetically engineered substance ... does not affect the status of the certified operation and does not necessarily result in loss of organic status for the organic product."

"That's such bullshit," says Gates.

Leslie McKinnon, coordinator of the Organic Certification Program for the Texas Department of Agriculture, says there are grounds for such standards."Because of the reality of the way pollen travels on the wind, it is unrealistic to take a zero-tolerance approach," she says. The law, says McKinnon, is "practice-based"; it is enforced only when a producer intentionally violates its standards. In determining whether the presence of GM substances or "products of excluded methods" in crops is intentional, certifiers consider the specific measures taken by producers to prevent their presence. At the same time, the USDA's website states that "buffer zones should not be sized at distances that attempt to achieve a zero tolerance for prohibited substances."

Dan Gillotte, general manager of the Wheatsville Food Co-op in Austin, sympathizes with certain provisions of the National Organic Program that allow producers some leeway, such as its tolerance of 5 percent non-organic ingredients in certified organic products. (The California Organic Foods Act also allowed 5 percent non-organic ingredients in certified organic foods; the National Organic Program actually strengthened the requirements for the "made with organic" label, increasing COFA's minimum of 50 percent organic ingredients to 70 percent.)

"The consumer might want 100 percent organic, but the reality is there are manufacturing concerns," says Gillotte. "If `certain companies` couldn't get `the organic label`, then they wouldn't make any of the ingredients organic, so it's more beneficial that 95 percent of the ingredients are organic than to not have the product be organic at all."

Producers and handlers certainly benefit from certification. Gillotte says 2005 is already Wheatsville's "best sales year ever," and he attributes the store's unparalleled performance to a booming demand for organic foods. Wheatsville is not alone. According to a 2004 Manufacturer Survey by the Organic Trade Association, U.S. organic food sales have grown between 17 and 21 percent each year since 1997.

Gillotte says some of his store's best-selling foods are produced by leading organic manufacturers such as Muir Glen and Cascadian Farms, a trend that points to another contentious issue in the saga of organic certification: the industrialization of the organic movement. Despite Gillotte's general acceptance of the National Organic Program, he acknowledges it can often marginalize small, local farmers like Gates.

"Sometimes `the National Organic Program's standards` tell farmers what they can't do, but `does not` tell them what they should do."

- Steve Bridges

"The scale becomes problematic," Gillotte says. "If you can have a 1,000-acre organic tomato farm, you're going to get some economies of scale that the guy who has a 10-acre farm is never going to have." For example, says Gillotte, larger-scale producers can apply fixed costs such as those spent on machinery to a larger quantity of crops, enabling them to charge less for their products. Because small farmers often cannot afford annual certification, which costs about $535 per 100 acres, they are unable to market their products as organic and compete with the larger producers.

Another aspect of the National Organic Program is that it doesn't provide a way for "fanatics" like Gates to certify to a higher standard than the federal government requires, therefore making it impossible for the consumer to distinguish between foods produced according to strict organic standards and those produced at the minimum of the national requirements.

"Sometimes `the National Organic Program's standards` tell farmers what they can't do, but `does not` tell them what they should do," says Steve Bridges, president of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, who likens federal regulation of organic farming to a corporate takeover. He says the encroachment of big business will further debilitate the standard. "As you get more corporate interest in being organic, they're going to seek to weaken the rules."

Bridges sees more ominous developments on the horizon. He says that at a recent organic research workshop held in Austin, some scientists espoused the seeming paradox of genetic modification in organic foods. "They think technology can help organics," he says.

To counter what critics such as Bridges and Gates consider a growing threat to organic production and to from those just meeting the minimum of the National Organic Program's standards, some farmers have adopted alternative food labels that indicate local or GM-free production. To use the word "organic" without federal certification, however, would bring a $10,000 fine.

"That's why so many small farmers are disappointed in all this," says Bridges. "Because they've stolen the word from us."

By Brian Chasnoff